A couple of weeks ago I was cleaning out some boxes of books in the donations room of my library when a slim volume caught my eye. It was a old paperback copy of stories written by Sholom Aleichem. Now I am quite familiar with some of Sholom’s stories, including “Tevye the Dairyman” (the inspiration for The Fiddler on the Roof) and a beautiful cycle of stories called “The Song of Songs” about a young man and his love for a girl. I also enjoy the clever picture book by Erica Silverman and Mordicai Gerstein — Sholom’s Treasure: How Sholom Aleichem Became a Writer. But as I began reading this new discovery, something occurred to me that I wanted to share with you.
As I read, I was struck by how easily and naturally Sholom Aleichem wove the everyday religious observance of his characters into the stories. It wasn’t that the stories were about Jewishness, but more that they were about incidents or adventures that happened over the course of the characters’ lives, and those lives were intimately bound up in religious observance. This made me think of other children’s books I’ve read in which religion is neither minimized or stressed, but just seems to be a natural part of the characters’ experience. I thought of such books as Anne of Green Gables, where her Presbyterian upbringing seems as natural as her red hair. The Little House books also come to mind, especially when the Ingalls family had moved into town and there was a church close enough to attend regularly. Then I remembered Tom Sawyer and his escapades winning the Sunday School Bible, meeting Becky at the church picnic, and of course strolling into his own funeral. These books, and so many others written during or about the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, have religious observance woven into the story itself, not as a plot element necessarily, but as the fabric on top of which all the rest of the story is embroidered.
This made me wonder about how church attendance is represented these days. I have been trying to find similar examples of books written in the past decade or so in which religion is similarly portrayed—as an element of the characters’ lives but not the main reason for the action of the plot. For some reason, finding those books is proving to be very difficult indeed! Religious observance is such a huge part of an active LDS family’s life. I would love to see some books that reflect that type of ecclesiastical participation, if only to help children from our culture realize that church going is a recognized part of other children’s lives. Maybe I am not looking in the right places. I have expanded my search, as you can see, to include well-known books written from at least the seventies on. Here are a few of the books I’ve found, and some brief notes about them. If you can think of additional examples, please jump right in and share them:
- Code Talkers, by Joseph Bruchac. The Navajo religion, with the special use of pollen and the songs of blessing and purification are an integral part of the main character’s experience.
- Millions, by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Damian is obsessed with Catholic saints. He brings them into everyday conversation. He also meets some Latter-day Saints!
- Ramona and Her Father, by Beverly Cleary. When Beezus is chosen to be Mary for the church pageant, Ramona sees her in a different light.
- The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper. The whole Stanton family attend church and sing in the choir or participate in other types of religious ways to celebrate Christmas.
- The Conch Bearer, by Chitra Divakaruni. Hinduism is visible in every aspect of this story of a young boy who is on a quest to take a sacred conch to a shrine in the Himalayas.
- The Oracle Betrayed, by Catherine Fisher. The religion at the heart of this fantasy story may be made up, but it is a main part of the entire series, of which this is the first.
- One-Eyed Cat, by Paula Fox. Ned’s father is a minister, and he lives his religion by example. Sometimes this is very difficult for Ned to understand. It is a lot to live up to.
- Blood Red Horse, by K. M. Grant. This series is set in the middle ages, with Crusaders and knights and monks and devout adherents to both Christianity and Islam.
- Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale. Shannon Hale does a marvelous job of weaving the religion of the Mongolian steppes into this lovely story.
- The Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbottson. Annika was found abandoned in a church when she was a baby. Her discovery was a miracle, and she is always aware of her spiritual roots.
- Redwall, by Brian Jacques. Okay, maybe mice and other animals can’t really be monks and priests, but Brian Jacques has created a believable tale where religion is certainly a major part of the creatures’ lives.
- The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney. It’s not the most reverent book, admittedly, but the Heffley family does attend church.
- A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle. Vicky’s beloved grandfather is a minister, and the wind of religion and spirituality breathes through this book.
- The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson. This favorite from 1972 shows a community immersed in religious culture and observance.
- The Heavenly Village, by Cynthia Rylant. What happens after death? This book gives one person’s interpretation.
- The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt. Holling is the only Protestant boy in his class. Half his class goes to Catechism classes on Wednesday afternoons, half go to Hebrew school.
- Stories for Children, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Like Sholom Aleichem’s stories, Singer writes from a Jewish tradition.
- Moon over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool. Abilene meets Sister Redempta, who helps her learn more about herself and what it means to be a friend.